Get to know Melissa Morgenstern, Minerva’s Student Accounts Manager, as she shares about her career path, her work with financial aid at Minerva, and some embarrassing high school outfits.
This article is part of Meet Minerva, a series of interviews introducing the Minerva community to the humans behind the school’s policies and classes. This interview transcription has been edited for length, clarity, and organization.
Emma Stiefel: Tell me a little bit about your life, anything that you think is important for us to know.
Melissa Morgenstern: A big part of my life has always been international communities. My mom is from the Netherlands, my dad is from Israel, I was raised in New York and the Netherlands partly and also travel a lot to Israel for my dad’s family. I knew growing up I wanted to have an international community around me. At first, I thought I wanted to be a gynecologist, then an anthropologist, then a sociologist, and then I somehow wound up in education. There’s a humongous story to that, but I can relay some of the more interesting parts as we go on.
ES: Outside of your work at Minerva, what do you do for fun or as a hobby?
MM: I read a lot. I also love music and dance. I’m part of a choir [called Cantare Con Vivo]. I’ve been in choir for 15-20 years of my life and I’m so glad to have been able to do it. I always try to find ways to make my life unique and give back. I participate in Mandarin exchange groups, I help people who want to bolster their Mandarin or Chinese people who want to practice English. And I volunteer as much as I can. Right now I’m part of a task force that helps shop for elderly people who can’t go out in public. I’m also passionate about food security, so I’ve worked in community gardens and marketplaces for low-income individuals.
ES: Is there anything else students would be surprised to learn about you?
MM: I mean speaking Mandarin is pretty surprising. People are surprised by how internationally-minded I am, like I love spicy food, I watch Bollywood movies, I am a huge fan of Israeli and Middle Eastern bands. I’ve never lived a purely American life even though I look like Bettie Sue from next door, I’m blonde, and I have greenish-brown eyes.
Also, in high school, I wanted to be the confident cool alternative girl, but really I was a nerd and a Hot Topic goth. At every prom I never wore a prom dress and always went in the weirdest outfits. I went in a kimono with combat boots, I went in a ripped-up skirt with a green fishnet top, I went in a full jean suit with chaps and dyed my hair orange. When I graduated high school, my mom tied ribbons in my hair and part was dyed orange to represent the Netherlands and I wore combat boots. When I was in choir I wanted to be rebellious, so when we were supposed to wear tights I wore fishnet stockings. The way nerds try to be rebellious in really stupid ways.
ES: How did you end up at Minerva?
MM: I’ve been in international education for 10-15 years as a student and an employee. I found Minerva through a search for international education jobs. I actually thought Minerva was fake, but I went to a friend of mine who was also in education who told me it’s great. So I applied, and when I was applying I honestly had no clue what this place was. Previously I worked at UC Berkeley’s extension program, which is for nontraditional students and students who want to get further accreditation. I thought Minerva might be like that, but it wasn’t even close.
I think what really drew me to Minerva was I had worked in financial aid before, and it’s traditionally very limiting. You’re very limited by a budget and by what the school can actually handle in terms of not just the money you’re giving but also the populations you’re working with. Traditionally financial aid is very much American centered, so they’re looking at American populations like low-income students. Financial aid at Minerva is not even close to that. Instead, you come in and we decide what your need is and we don’t care if you’re from Kazakhstan or Brazil or the US or Japan, we’ll figure it out.
[Working at Minerva has] been an amazing journey to go on. When I tell people what we do, they look at me with blank stares because they can’t even comprehend it. What I appreciate about Minerva’s financial aid program is that it is truly need-based and it does its best to really look at different communities and support students regardless of where they’re coming from. That is something that in my experience has been lacking in financial aid deliberations [at other institutions].
ES: Were you doing financial aid at the UC Berkeley extension program before?
MM: No, I got my financial aid training at a Mandarin immersion school. [The students] were young kids so we were looking at the parents and how they would fit within the school. As a Mandarin immersion school, you already have a narrow population of people who want to learn Mandarin. Unfortunately, that limits a lot of other populations who maybe would benefit from something like this but don’t have the money or time to enroll their kids. It was great to learn about the various populations and trends in financial aid, but it was a little disheartening to see the limits that were placed on us.
ES: How was the process of learning to do financial aid for such an international student body at Minerva?
MM: First off I needed to know what tools you guys use: the CSS profile, for instance. We did have something similar at my previous job, but it’s very different because those were primary school students and college students are a totally different ball game. You’re not only looking at the parents, you’re looking at the whole family plus the student. Especially when it comes to international populations, the American nuclear family doesn’t hold true the world over; sometimes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends are all living under one roof.
We’re also learning about how international populations need to interact with the CSS profile so we get better information because at the end of the day most tools in the US are made for a US audience. CSS is advanced in that they do have international students in mind, but no one does financial aid like Minerva so it’s never going to be a perfect tool.
The next part was seeing how our internal tools like [Minerva’s Financial Aid Questionnaire] interact with CSS and how we use that to make decisions. It’s about consistency, making sure that if there’s some sort of item that’s not quantifiable and the student needs to express more in words they have the opportunity. It’s also for us to see how economic systems work where they’re from.
That has been an amazing part of my journey. I am a huge proponent of culture-based interaction and understanding that no culture, no individual is the same as another even if they’re identical twins. I am really sensitive to individual differences and cultural differences, so it has been amazing to learn all of these regional practices for economics and finance.
For instance, we might ask about illiquid property. In the US, it’s like, “ok, I have this house and it’s $500,000 and the debt on it is $200,000.” But if we go to other areas of the world [it’s different]. For instance, in Eastern Europe we’ve learned that it’s hard to value immovable property because in many countries that were part of the Soviet Union, property was just given to people. These houses are who knows how old and there’s no historic path. We can’t see who was the original owner or who bought it because no one bought it, it was just given by the government. We have to work with that population to understand their families’ paths in finance.
Another good example is asking, “What is a self-owned business?” In the US, we think of a self-owned business as a storefront or a website with employees and tax records. But in Vietnam, it could be that someone’s mom sells fans on a tarp on the street, and we have to completely reimagine our definition of what a cell phone business is.
My work-study team this year has been key. It has people from five different countries. They’ve been instrumental in helping me understand not just the Minerva point of view but also their country’s point of view. If I have a question like, “This person says that they’re a subsistence farmer in Kenya in this area, is this really an area where farming happens?” my intern could say, “Oh yeah, this is middle of nowhere Kenya, mostly farmers.”
I am really sensitive to individual differences and cultural differences, so it has been amazing to learn all of these regional practices for economics and finance.Melissa Morgenstern, Student Accounts Manager
ES: I can’t even begin to imagine how much complexity that must involve on a day to day basis.
MM: It’s about individual differences as well. Some of them are both culturally dependent and culturally independent. For instance, if a family is divorced or if a parent lost their job a year ago and hasn’t been employed since. Stuff that’s shared the world over but is very different in practice. It’s a balance between looking at general trends for a region and also the individual.
ES: With the work you’ve done on the financial aid team, is there any memory or a project you’ve worked on that stands out to you as something you’re proud of?
MM: One thing I really want to improve on, which I think everyone on the finance team and Minerva in general wants to improve on, is communication. I was told coming into this position that my predecessor did two presentations for the freshman every year, and I need to do that too. One thing that helped was having two senior Minerva work-study students who could be my eyes to say this is what students are worried about or this is something that really confused us last year. I could think about how to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
[This year one presentation was] Finance 2.0. It was amazing because we went through the basics with freshman like who to contact when you have a financial aid question, who to contact when you have a visa question, how you pay a term bill, how you understand how your scholarship is applied, and how you make the decision to go independent or live in the dorm financially. People were really happy about it, the only complaint they had was that we didn’t do it earlier.
Our goal now is to make more materials like that, not only presentations but also materials we can historically document. One thing I’ve been working on a lot recently is trying to create libraries of historical documentation so that students can see change over time. It’s my goal and the finance team’s goal to help students make financial decisions that will empower them individually. We don’t necessarily have to agree with those decisions, it’s more that we want you to have the information to feel confident and independent enough to make the right decision for yourself.
ES: That’s good to hear, and honestly I think some people in my year would benefit from that presentation. Is there anything else that you’re really proud of or maybe just that you’re trying to work on improving with your work with financial aid?
MM: Really, communication and [increasing understanding of] what financial aid is at Minerva. It is such a unique system, and I’m working with not just students but also staff members on other teams so they understand what our financial aid is. I’ve heard misconceptions from various teams at Minerva and I have to come in and [clarify the subject].
Overall, it’s been tough because this role is a busy role. There’s a lot going on but it’s important for me to take the time to talk to people and make those important connections with students, coworkers, and leadership and to let people know that there’s a human here and I care.
That’s something I’m really proud of from this past year. I came in honestly very nervous and not knowing what I would be encountering. [I’m proud of] getting to know people and learning where my voice is in all of this. I’m a very personable one-on-one kind of person but I’m also an administrator, so there are limits that I have to recognize and continue to improve upon. It’s been a journey to create those relationships while still respecting the limits of the position.
Finance is definitely something that we take personally; it’s a part of us, it’s sensitive, it’s like poking a raw wound sometimes. I am a huge proponent of the spirit-finance connection and making sure a student has the tools to approach finance independently, maturely, and with strength.Melissa Morgenstern, Student Accounts Manager
ES: That’s a nice segue into the next thing I wanted to ask you about. Outside of your role working with financial aid at Minerva, since you’re based in Berkeley, have you gotten a chance to engage with the community in San Francisco?
MM: I have in certain ways. The San Francisco Public Library holds a financial literacy week for free. I tried to push that for the M’23s. I only got two students but granted I was new and had no idea what was going on, so two was good. We spent the day together and I got to learn more about those students and how they want to grow, which was awesome.
I also participated in an Oxygen event where we made food for students and talked about what the dishes mean to us. I came up with the idea of doing a financial breakdown of these recipes and where the best places are to get these ingredients so that they don’t spend a lot. We made a booklet and I made chicken soup because that’s my favorite thing in the world but then I was a little embarrassed because so many of the freshmen are vegans and vegetarians. I was like, “Sorry, guys, I don’t know a lot about this stuff.”
Another thing is I love talking to students and getting to see them. It’s not always the best conversation because sometimes I’m telling them stuff they don’t want to hear and they’re kind of rejecting it, and sometimes [they cry]. But my parents are social workers. My dad is the family services director of a social services network for the Bronx in New York, and my mom works with people who die or are dying. So I was raised in a community of socially-minded people, and I also have struggled with my own demons. I use that to comfort the person and give them the tools to be stronger for the next rejection. Because this is just a test honestly, people are going to be way meaner as they grow and go off into the world.
I strongly believe that there is a spiritual and financial connection. Finance is definitely something that we take personally; it’s a part of us, it’s sensitive, it’s like poking a raw wound sometimes. I am a huge proponent of the spirit-finance connection and making sure a student has the tools to approach finance independently, maturely, and with strength. A lot of people leave college, myself included, and don’t know what an interest rate is or what a credit card is. Minerva students already know more than average, but I think that worldwide there isn’t much mental or spiritual preparation for how to handle finances. We don’t talk about them openly. By the time we become adults and have to take finances on ourselves it becomes a hindrance to becoming an independent person. My goal is to smash that and teach students how to go out into the world. You can be scared, being scared is fine, but know that you have the tools to make the right decisions for yourself and not get stuck in the muck.
ES: It’s really interesting to hear you describe it that way, I think it’s a useful perspective to have. Backing up a bit, how did you come to work in financial aid specifically or just education in general?
MM: It’s kind of a weird journey. I started out in anthropology and sociology. I realized it wasn’t enough for me and I wanted a cultural component, so I studied Mandarin language in college. That was because I’d always had this fascination with East Asia and that was the language [my school] had at the time.
I was planning to take two years of Mandarin as the school mandated. I went to a very small liberal arts college with one Mandarin professor. That professor broke both his legs in an accident in my second year, and his assistant became the professor. Then that assistant told me, “You’re my assistant now because you’re the only one I know.” That became a Mandarin accelerator course, I learned to type and speak really fast.
Learning Mandarin funny enough got me interested in more male-dominated fields. Back then Mandarin was very much dominated by men because it was the key to getting a good business position. I just got into Mandarin because I thought it was cool, so I had a way different perspective. But I went to grad school in China, which was also very male-dominated. It bothered me how many of us girls were going into social studies. There’s nothing wrong with social studies, but we need more women in tech and finance, we need to infiltrate.
So I decided to look at harder fields to challenge myself. I did social studies throughout undergrad, in grad school I did international relations, and then I got into education. A thread throughout my career was finance. I always had to balance budgets, I had to communicate what an American financial system would mean to a Chinese person and vice versa. I had to deal with kids who had no clue about money. Then I got to the Mandarin immersion school and a couple months in they told me to [learn their financial aid system].
In international programs [in the US], traditionally there is a heavy representation of one to two cultures and the others kind of trickle in. In the past, it was China and India. If you went to UC Berkeley you would see a ton of Chinese diaspora, and then Indian and Korean [students]. Good luck finding other populations [from Europe, Africa, or Latin America].
With Minerva, I was [impressed that] you get kids from all these countries that are traditionally not represented in international programs. When I found Minerva I was fed up with the overrepresentation of certain cultures and the limits of what we could do to help more disadvantaged populations. I was jaded and didn’t believe Minerva could do what they do, but then I started working and realized they actually do it.
It’s such a great program and affordable, but a big question is, “What do I need to do to make it work?” Everyone needs to come to it with that mentality.Melissa Morgenstern, Student Accounts Manager
ES: It makes sense when you explain it that way. It’s nice to hear as a Minerva student that the school is doing a good job in that way because a lot of students like me who came here from high school don’t have anything to compare it to.
MM: Something that fascinates me about Minerva is that for people like yourself who come from high school, and who knows what type of high school you went to, but Minerva is totally different. You go from a traditional pyramid [organizational structure] to Minerva which is like, I don’t know, a hexagon, and you don’t know what to expect.
So it’s our job to figure out what our relationship is. It’s our job on the administrative side to ask what limits we need to impose and what we are willing to be more personable about. For students it’s the same thing: what are you willing to share and give that in other places you wouldn’t have to?
It’s such a great program and affordable, but a big question is, “What do I need to do to make it work?” Everyone needs to come to it with that mentality. It’s great because then you can go into the world and say, “I was one of the major classes that was part of this crazy great educational experiment that’s modeling the future for other schools.”